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What is a Value Stream?


February 3, 2022

For me, a value stream is, quite simply, anything that delivers a product or a service. But here are some thoughts from other practitioners:

James Martin, the author of ‘The Great Transition’, wrote that a value stream is:

“An end-to-end collection of activities that creates a result for a 'customer,' who may be the ultimate customer or an internal "end-user" of the value stream.”

Here are some other definitions:

  • Wikipedia: A value stream is the set of actions that take place to add value to a customer from the initial request through realization of value by the customer.
  • Lean.org: All of the actions, both value-creating and nonvalue creating, required to bring a product from concept to launch (also known as the development value stream) and from order to delivery (also known as the operational value stream). These include actions to process information from the customer and actions to transform the product on its way to the customer.
  • Scaled Agile: Value Streams represent the series of steps that an organization uses to implement solutions that provide a continuous flow of value to a customer.
  • iSixSigma: A value stream is all the steps (both value added and nonvalue added) in a process that the customer is willing to pay for in order to bring a product or service through the main flows essential to producing that product or service.

So different frameworks have differing definitions for value streams, but they all have things in common:

  • They consist of a number of activities/actions/steps
  • They end with a ‘customer’ (external, or sometimes internal)
  • They all recognize that we are creating value

 

James Martin expanded on his definition:

  • The value stream team is concerned with all the activities, from start to delivery of results, and confirmation of satisfaction
  • The value-stream designers search for ways of achieving “outrageous” improvements in critical measures such as speed, cost, quality, and service
  • The value stream team is intensely focused on the customer (an external customer or an internal user) and is concerned with how to delight the customer

Here are some other useful definitions from some of the key reads on value stream management:

  • “In DevOps, we typically define our technology value stream as the process required to convert a business requirement into a technology-enabled service that delivers value to the customer.” (The DevOps Handbook)
  • “Whenever there is a product for a customer, there is a value stream.” (Learning to See)
  • “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a value stream, you don’t know what you’re doing.” (Value Stream Mapping)

So every value stream starts with ideation and finishes when that idea realizes its intended value in the hands of the customer.

Digital value streams are different because we never make the same thing twice. Variability and quality are different in the digital world where the product is evolving rapidly - we’re not manufacturing copies of the same product over and over. But code changes do follow the same path to the same customers. It’s very hard to build for quality when the product is always changing - and is intended to constantly change.

 

Digital value streams pass through a number of common steps but will vary from team to team consider also:

  • Terminology - ‘validate’ or ‘test’ for example, or ‘deploy’ or ‘release’?
  • Additional steps: What about additional analysis? Or CABs? Or environment provision?
  • Steps within steps: E.g. how many validate steps? Unit, integration, user acceptance, performance, security tests?
  • Value stream dependencies: Are there other supporting value streams? Other digital value streams or legal, governance, HR?

Module 2 of our VSM Foundation course is about Identifying Value Streams. Find out more about the course and certification here.

Helen Beal

Helen Beal

Helen Beal is a DevOps and Ways of Working coach, chief ambassador at DevOps Institute, and ambassador for the Continuous Delivery Foundation. She is the chair of the Value Stream Management Consortium and co-chair of the OASIS Value Stream Management Interoperability Technical Committee. She also provides strategic advisory services to DevOps industry leaders. Helen hosts the Day-to-Day DevOps webinar series for BrightTalk, speaks regularly on DevOps and value stream-related topics, is a DevOps editor for InfoQ, and also writes for a number of other online platforms. She is a co-author of the book about DevOps and governance, Investments Unlimited, published by IT Revolution. She regularly appears in TechBeacon’s DevOps Top100 lists and was recognized as the Top DevOps Evangelist 2020 in the DevOps Dozen awards and was a finalist for Computing DevOps Excellence Awards’ DevOps Professional of the Year 2021. She serves on advisory and judging boards for many initiatives including Developer Week, DevOps World, JAX DevOps, and InterOp.